Greeting the Light at Hill ‘Skyspace’

by Catherine Lee
Posted 4/3/24

Judging from the comments in the Skyspace guest book, reactions to the program are unanimous – the experience is indeed wondrous. 

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Greeting the Light at Hill ‘Skyspace’


I’m in a room with about 40 other people, staring at the ceiling as sunset settles over the Chestnut Hill Friends Meetinghouse on a Sunday evening. An oculus in the domed ceiling that’s open to the sky turns lime green. As the sky darkens, the walls start changing color – from white to turquoise to deep rose.

Most people are lying on their coats or yoga mats on benches and the floor, settling in, getting comfortable. A young woman lying in a wide window well near me extends her arm, letting her hand drop toward the floor. Bathed in light and color, I feel myself relaxing. The busyness of life fades. All I can think about are the colors that fill the room.

When the program ends about an hour later, folks in the room stand quietly and stretch. Host Ginny Christensen, who is a member of the Meeting, asks if anyone has a comment about what they’ve just experienced. 

A woman who is a first-time viewer of James Turrell's “Greet the Light” program describes it as “incredible.” Another woman mentions that she may have seen a shooting star streak past the aperture in the ceiling. Judging from the comments in the Skyspace guest book, reactions to the program are unanimous – the experience is indeed wondrous. 

With the start last month of the 11th season at the Skyspace, there are still plenty of opportunities to view the program created by Turrell, an internationally acclaimed artist who is known as the master of light. 

Evening programs are held on the first Friday of each month and every Sunday through December, with the exception of Sunday evenings that fall on weekends with Friday programs. For early risers, there are six "Greet the Dawn" programs that start in darkness and end with the sunrise. 

Because the programs are designed to unfold along with the changing light outdoors, each one is different. All of the programs are weather-dependent. You’ll need to reserve a ticket in advance through Ticketleap

Through the use of lights and computer programming, the Skyspace manipulates the viewer’s visual perception of light and color, creating an experience that is ethereal and otherworldly.

Turrell, who is 80, was born in Los Angeles to Quaker parents. When talking about his faith, Turrell often brings up his maternal grandmother, who wore plain dresses and a black bonnet. She urged him “to go inside to greet the light.” The Skyspace in Chestnut Hill is one of more than 85 around the world designed by Turrell.

Turrell’s light works “give form to perception,” says Nancy Spector, artistic director and Jennifer and David Stockman Chief Curator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. His Skyspaces “harken back to ancient building techniques that deployed natural light — and the cycles of the cosmos — to create symbolic architecture.”

Christensen, a retired teacher and educational administrator who spent much of her career at Quaker schools, views the Skyspace as a visual embodiment of her faith. “As Quakers, this is what we do for worship. We settle into silence and listen to our small inner voice. It’s why the notion of light resonates with us.” 

An avid knitter and collector of colorful textiles from around the world, Christensen says art is “one of the many pathways to spirituality. Art touches the spiritual self.” Since the Skyspace opened in 2013, it has hosted more than 19,000 visitors, including many art students from Philadelphia area colleges and universities.

The Skyspace has been part of the meetinghouse since the Chestnut Hill Friends opened their current place of worship in September 2013. The Friends had outgrown their original building, “a lovely little house just up the hill on Mermaid Lane with a fireplace,” says Signe Wilkinson, a member of the Meeting and a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist whose work appears in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Wilkinson launched the effort to bring the Skyspace to Chestnut Hill.

Wilkinson and her husband traveled to Houston to see the Turrell Skyspace at the Live Oaks Friends Meeting in Houston. While they were there, they met art dealer Hiram Butler, who represents Turrell. Butler, “opened the door on the idea” of Turrell designing a Skyspace in Chestnut Hill, Wilkinson says. 

The computer program that keeps the Skyspace running in sync with sunrise and sunset is set for the next 10 years. Wilkinson, who serves as a Skyspace host, says she enjoys hearing the reaction of first-time viewers to the program.

“Watching it gives you a sense of time, light and the cosmos,” she says. “It’s an experience of such beauty and simplicity and yet so profound because it’s individual for each person, but you’re also sitting in community.”

The air is crisp and cool when I leave the meetinghouse. Glancing up at the sky, I notice the moon is almost full. Even now, I’m holding on to the light.